Court addresses out-of-control class action fees for attorneys

published in The Oklahoman | January 9, 2015

While Oklahoma law allows attorneys to seek the recovery of reasonable legal fees following the successful resolution of certain lawsuits, what’s “reasonable” is often a judgment call on the part of the courts.

Trial lawyer Jason McVicker was interviewed by The Oklahoman about a recent case in which the Oklahoma Supreme Court intervened to more clearly define what constituted a “reasonable” fee. In Hess vs. Volkswagen of America, Inc., the defendants agreed to pay the 310 class action participants a total of $45,00 – or approximately $140 per person – to settle a case in which the plaintiffs alleged a cosmetic defect to the front spoilers of their Volkswagen Jettas. As part of the settlement, the automaker also agreed to pay reasonable legal fees.  They then quickly appealed the lower court’s decision when an Oklahoma district judge awarded the plaintiffs’ attorneys more than $7 million in legal fees, a figure roughly 51,000 times greater than the amount recovered for the plaintiffs.

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that an award must bear some reasonable relationship to the amount in controversy,” said McVicker. “The award of attorney fees here didn’t pass muster; the difference between $45,000 and $7 million is staggering.”

While the justices noted that complex cases or those that required special expertise or courage may justify a higher award of legal fees, this wasn’t one of them, said McVicker. As a result, the high court unanimously ordered the trial court to issue a new, smaller award.